Uncharted 4: A Thief's End Review
Action adventure franchise goes out with a bang
The Uncharted franchise has been enjoyable since its very first entry, starting back in 2007 on the PlayStation 3. Though not everyone considers Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in overly high regards, it was enticing, fresh, and very well made. It was different from the other games in the action-adventure genre at the time, offering grand spectacle, action, and memorable characters. The sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, took everything great about this new IP and turned it up to 11. To this day, it remains easily one of the best exclusives on the PS3. After such great heights, however, the third chapter didn't fare as well. While still occasionally entertaining, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception suffered from a convoluted plot and questionable gameplay alterations. However, Nathan Drake's tale was not yet complete, and for that we must turn to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End on the PlayStation 4.
In this fourth and decidedly last chapter of the franchise, we begin with an introduction to Nate and his brother Sam Drake. Similar to Uncharted 3, we follow the two boys through a few chapters of their young adult life to better understand their relationship and dreams. In the present, three years after the events of Uncharted 3, we find Nate and his now-wife Elena Fisher at home. The pair have done their best to settle down and domesticate their life, even though there are signs that they still long for the days of adventuring. These quiet moments are done quite well, showing that developers Naughty Dog are capable of creating good low-key scenes, just as they did in The Last of Us.
The initial chapters skip between past and present, and also serve as a tutorial of sorts for the various gameplay mechanics. While these opening hours aren't quite as poor as those found in Uncharted 3, the game still feels like a slog to get started. It takes a good 4 or 5 hours for things to finally take off, both from a narrative and gameplay perspective. In general, the game's pacing isn't very smooth and there are times when you wonder how much longer you'll need to climb through the same set of caverns. Some trimming would have been beneficial, as at about 14 to 16 hours on normal difficulty, this is by far the longest game in the franchise. Though if you choose to ignore stealth and collectibles, it can be completed in under 10 hours.
Domestic life is disrupted when Sam re-appears, shocking Nate who had thought him dead for the last 15 years. Sam is in trouble, and the only way to pay off his debts is to find pirate Captain Henry Avery's long-lost treasure. Long time partner in crime, Sully, joins the adventure, of course. Rafe Adler is a former friend of Nathan and Sam that’s also after the pirate treasure, and has enlisted the services of a private military organization led by Nadine Ross.
For the most part, the globe-trotting narrative of Uncharted 4 is an entertaining one. The actual story of Captain Henry Avery is clearly communicated and feels quite cohesive, something that hasn't always been the case with the past historical adventures. Players will get to find out pretty much everything there is to know about Nathan Drake, and there's some actual character growth on display. Sam, while playing a large role, ends up feeling as a one-note character that was purely meant to drive the plot. The writing, in general, is solid throughout and there are also major twists and revelations, but they are often cut short, lacking the gravitas in delivery and reactions from other characters when it was needed. The humor and character interactions are still natural and on-point; the three original heroes remain a clear focus and highlight of the whole experience. It's also decisively the last chapter - the story leaves few loose ends, and wraps up in a low-key and reassuring manner that concludes Nate's life of wild adventures. Don’t expect cliffhangers or much drama; if it wasn’t for the ending, this could have slotted into any other point in the franchise, as a fairly by the numbers tale of adventure.
While the gameplay in the first three games in this franchise was rather similar, Uncharted 4 makes significant changes to the formula. At first, things will be familiar, as Nathan explores exotic locations by climbing to dizzying heights and making death-defying leaps. There are occasional puzzles as well, though they are quickly and easily solved, often without even consulting your handy journal. These platforming sections continue to be mostly about the spectacle and thrill of gravity bending stunts. If you're ever stuck or are faced with a blocked passage, chances are you must go around. To the game's credit, while progression is still linear, there are many instances where a path can lead to a quick dead end, or to the same destination but via a slightly different route. While these new minor paths have little gameplay impact, they certainly help the level design feel less on-rails.
For the first time in the franchise, players get a gadget - a grappling hook. This tool functions as you'd expect in a third person action adventure game - players can grapple onto specific locations and swing across, or grab certain objects and pull them. You can also climb up and down the rope, as is sometimes required to reveal new handholds in the surface of the environment. This gives the levels a much more open and vertically-minded feel, despite the fact that you're still traveling in an essentially linear path, as you can now reach areas that would usually be impossible to reach in previous games. The grapple can also come into play during the grand setpieces, where players must throw it and grab on before they run out of ground to stand on. While on the subject of the explosive setpeices, a key selling point of the franchise, the ones found in Uncharted 4 impress, but feel a bit familiar. There are a few sequences that have definitely appeared in previous games in a slightly different form, which is a little disappointing, but they are still well executed and the few unique moments are quite fun to experience.
When it comes to combat, Uncharted 4 completely reinvents itself. But, before you get to the meat of the action the developers insist of dragging you into a bunch of melee brawls that remain as bland as they were in the last game, and become instantly obsolete as guns start getting involved. Gone are the flat environments where enemies spawn in and rush towards you. In this game, almost all encounters start off in stealth, so it is up to the players, if they want, to rush in and shoot, or try to make their way through without alerting anyone. All enemy encounter sections are usually found on a part of the level that has a multitude of paths, buildings, and elevation changes. It's an impressive level design feat, and this means Nathan is able to choose his approach, to either eliminate enemies in silence or even bypass most of them altogether.
A few new mechanics have been added to help players who want to dispatch foes quietly. Enemies can now be marked, and you can see their small indicator icons even through obstacles. Nate can perform his silent melee takedowns from behind, below, or jumping from above. There's also tall grass, Assassin's Creed style, that you can hide in. You can toss explosives without being revealed, but beyond that there are no ways to distract the guards, nor any silent weapons. Enemies usually hang around in a pattern, but once there is an explosion or a body is found, they will become alerted and start searching the area. This opens new random opportunities for more stealth eliminations. There's also a meter that indicates when you're visible to an enemy, and if it fills, you'll be spotted. For the most part, the stealth mechanics in Uncharted 4 are an improvement, but they still feel rather basic and the AI is sometimes inconsistent. Particularly, Nate's friends will often sprint around the area and get ignored by the guards, an issue that also existed in The Last of Us.
There are seemingly no advantages to using stealth to clear encounters however, unless you want to limit firefights or bypass enemies altogether, which is possible. So if sitting in wait for minutes at a time isn't your thing (and some players may feel it further bogs down the game already ripe with pacing problems), you can choose to engage the old fashioned way. Going in guns blazing, there's the usual assortment of pistols and assault rifles with limited ammo to choose from, and more can be picked up from fallen enemies. The aiming feels somewhat loose as it usually has in the series, though work has been done to make recoil appear more realistic. In a bit of odd design, your visual crosshair changes style when you're firing; as well, by default the aim assist is cranked all the way to 10. Turning it down resulted in a rather sloppy and unsatisfying experience, so perhaps the developers knew this could be an issue. Enemy variety is decent, with an assortment of mercenaries to dispatch, occasionally facing off against tougher and armored opponents. Encounters feature a set number of enemies, so you’re not faced with waves of foes spawning from around the corner. Other improvements include frequently destructible cover, and enemies using better tactics and reacting realistically based on where they are hit.
The level design changes seemingly culminate in the few very open levels where players get to use a vehicle to traverse the environment. Hopping into a jeep, players are able to drive across some terrain, whether it’s an action sequence with multiple paths, or a free-roaming section. During the free roam levels, players can explore the various corners of the map, which often contain a building with a treasure, or a small enemy camp. While freeing, these open levels don’t reward exploration as much as other games with similar design. Finding another treasure item doesn’t really feel worth the drive/climb to retrieve, since the game lacks any RPG-like progression elements, and there’s nothing else to do in these open levels. It helps the game world feel more grand than ever before, though. Nate is also able to dive and swim underwater, adding yet another dimension to explore or use as a tactical advantage.
Uncharted 4 features a variety of other ideas. For example, players can now choose any difficulty on the first playthrough, and also trigger optional conversations throughout the game that help flesh out relationships. There are plenty of cool bonuses to unlock, such as game-altering cheats, or new visual filters. Players can also begin from any chapter and even choose a specific encounter to quickly get to their favorite parts of the campaign. On the other hand, some of the design additions are not as worthwhile. Dialog choices pop up infrequently, letting players select how Nate responds, but these don’t have much effect beyond the immediate dialog. Some mechanics are used just once, such as pickpocketing, while others not nearly enough, such as the climbing piton that lets you stab specific surfaces to get across to the next ledge (akin to ice pick from Tomb Raider).
The franchise has always been a great technical showcase for the PlayStation 3, but Uncharted 4 takes it to the next level. This is far and above the best looking console game that I’ve seen. The technical aspects are quite astounding – from smooth edges to crisp textures and great lighting. Visual effects are excellent, as are the dynamic and scripted animations. Everything runs at an unshakable framerate with amazing anti-aliasing, and the game presents breathtaking vistas at almost every opportunity. But it’s not just the technical aspects that impress – the game can visually compare to most any PC title on Ultra settings; what makes Uncharted 4 stand out is the level of detail in both the environments and the characters. The small details and nuances are what push the game above its technically competent peers - vegetation being pushed away, the way characters move and react, the excellently mo-capped cutscene performances, the vibrant and varied color palette; it all comes together in one rather incredible visual package.
Audio design is not far behind, offering solid voice work from Nolan North, although at this point many of the grunts and screams may as well be copied from previous games. Other franchise vets Richard McGonagle and Emily Rose play their parts as well as usual. The big-name addition of Troy Baker as Sam Drake works well, though it’s not a groundbreaking performance. Laura Bailey does OK as Nadine Ross, but it’s Warren Kole that offers an impressive surprise in his role as Rafe Adler. One disappointing aspect is that the soundtrack – a highly memorable and consistent part of the series – underwhelms. The iconic main theme has been altered too much to be easily recognizable, and only plays twice through the whole game. The main menu and loading screens are simply silent.
While originally single-player focused, the introduction of online options in Uncharted 2 has been a hit with fans. Uncharted 4, therefore, also offers multiplayer in the form of three modes – 5 vs 5 team deathmatch (and a ranked alternative), Command, and Plunder. There are 8 maps in total, each with plenty of pathing options, elevation changes (though climbing is minimal) and opportunities to use the grappling hook for traversal.
Team deathmatch is self-explanatory; for the competitive variant, the XP ranking system has been removed in favor of skill based ranking. In Command, two teams of five battle over the control of a few spots on the map. It’s straightforward, with a slight twist being that a captain is randomly assigned, which grants bonuses to his team for as long as they remain alive. Enemy team gets their own boosts by eliminating the opposition captain. Finally, Plunder is a 4v4 mode akin to capture the flag, as teams battle to carry a totem from the center of the map to their base. Spawns in all modes are adjusted according to the flow of the action, and seem fair most of the time, promoting quick return to the action without putting you directly in harm’s way. The modes are stock standard, and feel a bit disappointing after the variety that was showcased in Uncharted 3.
The multiplayer gameplay itself continues to be solid. Players earn cash throughout the match, which they use to upgrade their gear in the match or purchase one-time use heavy weapons or abilities. As before, you unlock new weapons and items for custom loadouts by using the preset ones. Notable gameplay tweaks include the downed state, letting players crawl around to safety if they are wounded but not KO’ed. While being revived from this state, both players actually remain mobile, giving some much needed flexibility and not just being stuck in place for an animation. Players also have a charged up melee attack with the hook that will instantly bring down any opponent. Lastly, there is an audio effect that plays from the Dual Shock 4's speaker when your specials are recharged/ready for use. It's jarring and unnecessary, and the only use of the speaker in the whole game.
But the biggest changes come from new mechanics. First up are Mysticals, a special item that you can bring in your loadout that must be purchased as any other perk, and uses special powers inspired by franchise lore to turn the tide of battle. There are five in total; Wrath of El Dorado damages enemies within its radius by dark energy attacks, Spirit of Djinn allows players to teleport short distances but leaving them unable to take cover. The Cintamani Stone instantly revives any downed allies in its area, and Staff of Ayar Manco pulses the area to reveal enemies on your minimap. Lastly, Indra’s Eternity slows down enemies caught in its area of effect. All of these Mysticals are useful depending on the situation, though Wrath of El Dorado and Staff of Ayar Manco will likely see the most use.
The other big change is the sidekicks. They are purchasable during the match much like Mysticals, and have four roles. The Sniper must be positioned manually and will fire on approaching enemies; the Savior is a field medic that will run to revive any downed teammates nearby. The Hunter will chase down the nearest enemy and put them in a hold, while the Brute is a heavy machine gunner that deals a lot of damage but moves slowly. Calling in the right sidekick at the right time can easily turn the tide of battle, more so than the easily avoided Mysticals. It’s an interesting change that seems well balanced.
Running at 60fps, online action is smooth and without any major issues leading up to and during the game’s launch. Matchmaking has been very good, with most matches resulting in closely contested battles. Visual customization continues to play a big role for the developers, with tons of costumes and weapon colors to be found in randomly generated chests that you buy with Relic Points. You can earn more points by completing various daily challenges, or the series of Trials missions against AI that act as a tutorial for all aspects of online play. If you want a specific visual item, it can be unlocked with Uncharted Points, which are bought with real currency.
The Uncharted franchise has always operated with certain areas of focus in mind. For the first two games, it has been about story and characters first, gameplay second, and technical visuals third. With Uncharted 4, the focus has shifted, as this final chapter focuses on tons of gameplay improvements and incredible presentation, while the story and characters are not quite at their peak. But even so, almost every element of the game remains at least reaching greatness. With a somewhat mode-barren but enjoyable multiplayer thrown in, this is a complete package. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End effectively combines amazing presentation, polished gameplay and a good story to make it one of the best exclusives the PS4 has to offer, and a fitting end to the tale of our brave adventuring trio.